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INTERVIEW: Skull Defekts
Nick Hutchings , April 7th, 2014 07:22

With Stockholm miscreants The Skull Defekts releasing their latest album with Daniel Higgs this week, Nick Hutchings catches up with the band's Joachim Nordwall to discuss concerts-as-rituals and the "known unknown" between waking and sleep

Photo by Micke Keysendal

Joachim Nordwall is to Stockholm what Thurston Moore was to New York and, more recently, Hackney. He's a creator, curator and innovator, a purveyor and a patron. He's boss of label iDEAL Recordings and at the helm of noisy miscreants The Skull Defekts. Having started as a quartet drawing members from gloriously titled bands like Satan Power, Trapdoor Fucking Exit and Oceans Of Silver & Blood, as well as the more familiar Union Carbide Productions, this week finds the Skull Defekts releasing their third album as a quintet, Dances In Dreams Of The Known Unknown, joined once again by Daniel Higgs of legendary Dischord hardcore band Lungfish on vocals.

Dances In Dreams Of The Known Unknown is the band's fourth album for Thrill Jockey. It features dark slow-building rhythms of guitar, analogue synth waves that envelop you like fog, and Higgs' mostly improvised, almost poetic chants, which sometimes float above the music, and at other times lunge through it. On 'King of Misinformation' he asks you to "listen to my voice, I speak in tongues", and you can't help but be drawn in and left feeling queasy, uneasy and unsettled. The atmosphere is malevolent, the sound sometimes surprisingly mellifluous.

Although Higgs is a lightning conductor for the band, this open relationship is a long distance affair. However, when the two come together it's certainly a passionate love-in, if the records they've created are anything to go by. The difference between Dances In Dreams and predecessor Peer Amid is that when the band entered the studio this time around, they intended to make the noisiest record they could, to push things to the point when things snap. The results, however, have almost gone pop. The Quietus spoke to Nordwall about the methods behind their most melodic and insistent, yet whisper it, accessible record yet.

What happened in that studio?

Joachim Nordwall: We actually ended up making the songs come through as clearly as possible. I think the sound is different from Peer Amid – I think there is a deeper aspect to it.

It's still intense and I feel like I need a lie down afterwards. How do you feel now you've made it?

JN: Yeah, I think this record is actually one of the few I've done that I'm really enjoying listening to still. But it makes me feel a bit exhausted listening to it, I don't know, it makes me feel a bit strange. I find the songs a bit draining but in a good way.

How long did you spend in the studio?

JN: The recording itself is kind of fast, to be honest. We spent about a week in the studio, including the mixing and everything. But then we spent another two years working on the songs. Working separately and also together, since Daniel Higgs is based in the States it's not that we can actually work together that often, and we have not approached the level where we send each other files, because we want to be in the same room, so we can actually feel each other and see what kind of energy we can build.

We actually recorded two versions before this third one which we had to throw away because we didn't enjoy it. We haven't worked like that before, because we'd usually just write songs without really questioning what we do, but this time we actually took the luxury in making the songs more suitable to the kind of theme we were after.

And what is that theme?

JN: We all really enjoy the state you're in just before you fall asleep, when you sort of leave yourself. We prefer to call that "The Known Unknown" when you're in between states of mind. So, I think my inspiration is this hallucinogenic state of mind you can sometimes find yourself in, by yourself, or maybe some substance can help it too sometimes. But I'm more interested in what you can create yourself, I guess.

When Daniel Higgs arrives, what does he bring to the mix?

JN: He's kind of our spiritual leader, because when he comes into the room he listens to the material with an open mind. On most of the songs he plays this ancient instrument called a "Siberian ghost-catcher" used to communicate with dead relatives and animals. It's like a Jew's harp but longer and with two strings on it. That instrument adds another depth, and I was really happy he brought it to the studio because it makes the album flow even better.

How integral a member is he now?

JN: He's a member. But then again with Higgs, you can't really know. I don't know if he'll be on the next album. It all depends on where he is with his other work and where he is in the world. We're just super-grateful that we're able to work with him on these three records.

And you're about to tour – will Higgs be joining you?

JN: We're doing a US tour at the end of April, but that's as a quartet, then we're doing European shows this summer so he's coming over for a week or so.

What can people expect from the tour?

JN: It's going to be based on the new record and we will try to do some new stuff too. Maybe some material from Peer Amid and the 12" as well, usually we try to do something special. I see our concerts almost as rituals, it allows us to go to a different world. It's really difficult to make that happen because we're so spread out physically and mentally. When we collect the band together it's a special event and I really enjoy it.

When you're playing live do you need the audience to be involved?

JN: Everyone in the room is involved - that's a really important thing. That's why we use those really bright lights. We enjoy it when people can really see you – not only the band, but it spreads out to the audience as well. It becomes this room bathed in light, which is how I see the physical aspect of our music, with this globe of light coming out of it. That's the beauty about The Skull Defekts in a way, that live is different from the records. Of course you will recognise the sounds, but it will be a different energy.

How much improvisation is there in the live stuff?

JN: Since the songs are so monotonous, it allows a lot of space to happen in them. Also we have played some songs for many years, and they're changing constantly. We're doing a 12" for Diagonal coming out in late August. It's a re-recording of a song called 'Unholy Drums' from on our first album Blood Spirits & Drums Are Singing. We've played it for almost 10 years, and now it's a completely different thing. I really like it when you allow the songs to evolve or decay almost, and that happens through a long time of improvisation. The music itself, the foundations are really strict of course, but things can float above or underneath.

Dances In Dreams Of The Known Unknown is quite poppy by your standards, is this a new direction?

JN: I don't know. We tried something with this record and something different came out. I guess that would be the story hopefully next time as well – maybe if we tried to do a pop record, it would come out as like the noisiest record ever. I hope that happens! We'll see…

It feels like a record you have to listen to from beginning to end, I can't just listen to one track…

JN: Some of my favourite albums are like that - White Light, White Heat by Velvet Underground and US Maple's The Talker album - and maybe that has been one of the goals for the album. I don't feel the same with our album as I do with those favourite albums yet, but maybe I will one day.

Given that your music is so intense, what music do you have fun listening to or dancing to?

JN: Lately it's been a lot of a Swedish techno duo called Skudge, I really like them – they're like classic techno except with a new sound that's quite minimal and abstract and monotonous – I really enjoy that. Lately I've been listening more to electronic music than rock music actually – there's not that many bands I enjoy. My favourite rock band right now is Endless Boogie.

What else are you up to at the moment?

JN: I've run a small label called iDEAL since 1998 which does electronic experiments and some techno stuff. I also recorded last year with Pan Sonic's Mika Vainio on a record called Monstrance for the Touch label. We actually talked earlier this morning about recording our second album in Berlin in the summer, which should probably come out some time next year.

Does he talk much? When I interviewed him way back in Panasonic he didn't say much to, er, say the least!

JN: It probably helps me I'm half Finnish on my mother's side, so it probably helps, but he can really be quiet sometimes. But I really enjoy that.

The Skull Defekts' Dances In Dreams Of The Known Unknown is out now via Thrill Jockey